Clever solutions from deep space to the nanosphere

ying-chenA NEW nanomaterial that can absorb 30 times its own weight in oil within minutes could revolutionise the clean-up of oil spills.

A team of scientists led by Ying Chen, of Deakin University in Geelong, Victoria, developed the material, which owes its absorbent property to the multitude of pores within its unique structure. The material is composed of porous boron nitride “nanosheets”, each a few billionths of a metre thick. It is attracting interest worldwide for its ability to soak up oil from ruptured tankers or broken rigs, Chen says.

“Traditional clean-up methods like breaking up the oil with dispersants or skimming it off the surface are expensive, slow and unsafe,” he says.

“Our highly porous material offers a way to clean up oil spills effectively.”

The researchers have made the finals in the Manufacturing, Construction and Infrastructure category of The Australian ­Innovation Challenge awards with the invention. The awards, which offer $65,000 in prizemoney, are run by The Australian in association with Shell and with the support of the federal Department of Industry. A panel of eminent Australians is judging the Challenge in five professional categories, a Backyard Innovation section open to the public and a Young Innovators category.

Chen says the new material, a white powder, can be sprinkled on to the oil spill and scooped up after it has absorbed the ­oil. The tough nanosheets can be re-used many times by burning off the absorbed oil. Synthesis of the material involves several chemical reaction steps inside a furnace.

The scientists have a provisional patent on the material and are scaling up production to provide enough samples for testing in the field. They are in talks with prospective industry partners. Chen says the university will license the technology to industry for the material’s manufacture.

Among other finalists is a team led by Larry Jordan, of the Advanced Manufacturing Co-operative Research Centre, which has developed technology used in the manufacture of the Boeing 787.

The EDGe machine makes polycrystalline diamond cutting tools for use on advanced composites and other hard materials, such as titanium, increasingly incorporated in aeroplanes. It uses electric sparks, rather than mechanical grinding, to erode the diamond to form the sharp cutting tool edges, Jordan says. He says the method boosts tool performance and lifespan. Melbourne’s ANCA is selling EDGe to international cutting tool manufacturers.

Also in contention is a team led by Ian Bergman, of Canberra’s Perimeter Security Industries, which has developed a new way to detect intruders.

The SecureMat system is based on a mat with optical fibre cable woven through it. When an intruder steps on the mat the cable is compressed and the system detects a change in the intensity of light passing through the cable, the company says. The system can be wired to an alarm panel, with CCTV triggered, an alert or image sent as an SMS, or an alarm and flashing light set off, Bergman says. He says SecureMat, which can be visible or concealed, tackles the problem of false alarms in security systems. PSI will sell the technology to security companies.

Arul Arulrajah and Mahdi Disfani, of Melbourne’s Swinburne University of Technology, have advanced to the finals with work on the use of reclaimed demolition materials, such as glass and bricks, to make “green” roads and footpaths. They conducted research to optimise the engineering properties in materials, incorporating the recycled waste, for the base of footpaths and roads, Arulrajah says. The methods could divert millions of tonnes of waste from landfill and cut the amount of raw materials used in the construction of roads and footpaths, he says.

The pair has worked closely with state road authorities and local councils. Their results are being incorporated in specifications for roads, footpaths, pavements and embankments.

A CSIRO team led by Antony Schinckel has made the finals with revolutionary technology at the centre of the world’s most powerful radio telescope, the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder. The phased array feed receivers are being used in ASKAP’s 36 12m antennas at the Murchison Radio Observatory, 350km northeast of Geraldton, Western Australia. Results from a commissioning phase earlier this year showed the receivers have sped astronomical observations up dramatically.

The CSIRO has designed sophisticated ICT systems to handle the massive amount of raw data — generated by ASKAP at 100 terabits per second. The telescope is expected to have huge spin-offs in fields including ICT. It will form part of the international Square Kilometre Array — an even bigger telescope scheduled to start operations in 2020. Australia and New Zealand will co-host the SKA with southern Africa.

Written by: CHERYL JONES


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